Informal Learning and Mobile Devices: A pathway to Inquiry-Based Research in the Classroom

When I first got my iphone the entire world around me took on new meaning. As long as I had connectivity, I could google ANYTHING around me that I was curious about. And not only could I google it, but with the advantage of 3G and full access to a web browser, regardless of being on Wi-Fi, there were applications (apps) available that helped me to figure things out. Bird identification apps like iBird, Peterson’s Fields Guides; Plant identification apps like Leafsnap or Botany Buddy; Location apps and Map finding with Google Earth or Maps, all with just a swipe or finger touches gave me access to information that I didn’t know. There were even practical applications like a tide chart, star gazer, and unit converter.  When teaching science, teachers often try to get students to make the connection to the world around them. One passionate biology teacher says, “…my motives are clear–teach the children to see the world under their noses. The world offers riches beyond a wealthy family’s dreams, but you need to go outside. Kids know this until we teach them to forget. Most classes fit well in a classroom–a good biology class tends to ooze outwards.” (Doyle, 2012)

Then came QR codes (Quick Response). A QR code is a graphic that is composed of bits of data and arranged so that a QR code reader can read the marker. (QR Code, 2012 para. 1). The information that the code can contain may be text or numbers, an image, a video, and more commonly, a link to a website URL. With the advent of the QR code, my informal learning became more directed. If I chose to scan a QR code then the creator of this code is guiding my learning. If I chose to find out specifics on my own, I still had the tools available to me to explore those details that are most interesting to me. I recently visited a National Wildlife Refuge that offered many QR codes helping to identify the more stationary objects. This was helpful and interesting, but I still found myself relying on other mobile applications to help me understand the objects that were not stationary or unexpected. Unless one begins banding White Pelican’s with QR codes that are readable with a spotting scope, I wouldn’t have known that White Pelicans are not common to the area and only fly through on their migration route and that they don’t plunge like brown pelicans when they are feeding, but rather they scoop up fish, often working in groups. (Peterson, 2012).

The markers of QR codes quickly paved the way for opportunities for augmented reality (AR) elements. Wikipedia describes AR as “a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. (Augmented reality, 2012). AR markers, like QR codes, can contain text, images, videos, or links to website URLs, but with AR you can also add animations and the user’s experience changes depending on where the camera on the smartphone is pointing. AR takes the directed learning of QR codes a step farther by giving the viewer choices on where to focus their interest. The informal learning may begin as directed, but the user is given choices and alternatives for taking the next step.

According to a Nielsen survey, people in the US have a 55.5% preference for a smartphone over a feature phone and the trend is steadily moving towards that preference. Android and IOS continue to dominate the market. 75% of the 25-34 year olds own a smartphone, and teenagers 13-17 demonstrated the larger population increase from 36% owning a smartphone in 2011 to 58% at the time of this survey. (Nielsen, 2012).  As access to a smartphone increase, the more familiar with the device students and teachers will become. With this familiarity will come greater opportunities for informal learning that leads right into and will have greater influence on incorporating mobile learning devices in the classroom.

Many research papers have concluded that students have increased engagement and gain a deeper understanding of learning when they are in control of their own learning. This is referenced in a paper on “Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning: A Collaborative Study” referring to findings fromMary B., Nakhleh, John Polles, and Eric Malina, “Learning Chemistry in a Laboratory Environment,” in Chemical Education: Towards a Research-based Practice, John K. Gilbert, Onno De Jong, Rosária Justi, David F. Treagust, and Jan H. Van Driel, Eds. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), pp. 69–94. Similar findings are ubiquitous throughout education research. Students involved in the activities around inquiry-based research are prime examples of those who could benefit the most from using mobile technology both inside, and outside the classroom.

For me, informal learning is a progression into the basis for inquiry-based learning in a classroom.  “The potential for innovation and both collaborative and independent learning experimentation offered by using mobile devices in this context appears to be nearly unlimited.” (Abilene Christian University 2008-2009 Mobile-Learning Report. p. 24). The natural curiosity that is fostered by the knowledge that the answers are readily available is an exciting concept for educators to see in their students.  Allowing students to use their smartphones (or smart devices) in the class “…is the one device that they always have access to (the immediacy) as a learning hub (continuum and consistency) and that provides the mobility for them to learn outside of the classroom, on the move and across contexts, and thus really enabled students to take both responsibilities and ownership to motivate them.” (Looi, C.-K., Zhang, 2010).  As smart phones become prevalent and broadband becomes less expensive and more widespread, there will be more opportunities for seeing mobile device use for inquiry-based research.


Abilene Christian University 2008-2009 Mobile-Learning Report. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012 from

Augmented Realty. In Wikipedia, Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012, from

Clough, G., Jones, A.C., McAndrew, P. and Scanlon, E. (2008), “Informal learning with PDAs and smartphones.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24: 359–371.

Doyle. (Jun. 1, 2012). June, again. Retrieved: Oct. 30, 2012, from

Looi, C.-K., Zhang, B., Chen, W., Seow, P., Chia, G., Norris, C. and Soloway, E. (2011), “1:1 mobile inquiry learning experience for primary science students: a study of learning effectiveness.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27: 269–287.

NielsenWire. (Sept. 10, 2012). Young Adults and Teens Lead Growth Among Smartphone Owners. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012  from

Peterson, Roger Tory. (2012). Peterson Birds of North America. (iphone application created by Appweavers, Inc.

Powell, Cynthia B., Perkins, Scott, Hamm, Scott, Hatherill, Robert, Nicholson, Louise, and Harapnuik, Dwayne. (December 15, 2011.)  Mobile-Enhanced Inquiry-Based Learning: A Collaborative Study. Retrieved Oct 25, 2012 from

QR Code. In Wikipedia, Retrieved Nov. 4, 2012, from